Why Hikers Stack Rocks – And Should You Do It, Too?

As you’re walking along your hiking trail, you probably encountered a bunch of purposefully stacked rocks. We’ve been hiking for quite some time now and seeing these rock formations is almost inevitable on every trip. So, have you wondered why hikers stack rocks?

One of the main reasons why hikers do this is to help other hikers find their way. However, while stacking rocks doesn’t seem like a big deal, it has been a source of controversy among hikers. Some view the rocks as helpful guides while others think they’re unnatural and harmful to the environment.

So, which is which?

A Brief History of Rock Cairns

Rock cairns have appeared several times throughout history. Cairns came from the Gaelic term that means “heap of stones” and were used by the Scots to mark trails.

In the Andes Mountains and Mongolia, people use rock cairns to mark routes to food, safety, and villages. Meanwhile, early Norse sailors used them to mark the land even before lighthouses came to be.

When European settlers began making their way along the Arctic, they built cairns with hidden messages within. These messages were often an explorer’s last. They destroyed the cairns made by indigenous people, too, thinking they were built by their fallen comrades leaving messages behind.

In the American Southwest, however, it’s unclear when people started using rock cairns to mark trails. Meanwhile, evidence shows that Native American tribes use them to mark burial sites and create memorials. Dating rock cairns is nearly impossible, though, which is why archaeologists can’t tell when exactly the first stacks were built.

The Reason Why Hikers Stack Rocks

Also known as cairns, those stacks of rocks have been around for thousands of years. In ancient times, people have been stacking rocks to mark trails, buried items, and for ceremonies, hunting, and even astronomy.

Nowadays, you’ll mostly find cairns on hiking trails and other natural locations all over the world. Here are the main reasons why hikers stack rocks along hiking trails:

Why Hikers Stack Rocks: Navigation

As mentioned, the main purpose of stacking rocks on hiking trails is to guide other hikers toward the right path. If you’ve been on a part of a trail and asked yourself where to go next, looking for cairns is a good next step.

There may be times when you’re deep into a hike and everything starts to look the same. In this case, look for some cairns around and they can lead you to the right path forward. Plus, some state and national parks have built official cairns to aid hikers navigate popular hiking trails.

However, although cairns can help you navigate through confusing trails, remember not to rely on them. Do your homework and scout your trail beforehand and be extra careful once you reach those ambiguous areas.

There can also be times when there won’t be cairns to rely on and guide you toward the correct path. Therefore, make sure to have a topographic map or GPS device with you to help with your navigation.

Why Hikers Stack Rocks: Warning

Another great purpose of cairns is to warn hikers about the dangerous paths of a trail. Examples of such dangers can range from unstable ground to sudden drop-off of a cliff. If there are some stacked rocks in weird areas, they’re likely there to warn you about a dangerous spot.

You shouldn’t completely rely on cairns. But, it’s not a bad idea to follow them sometimes as they can end up saving your life.

Cairns are extremely helpful, especially if you don’t know the next step you should take on your hike. However, there are times when you’ll see them in the wild or next to a trail marker, which is unnecessary.

Moreover, because of social media, some hikers will build cairns to take a picture and just leave them behind. This is not what cairns are for and will not help other hikers. While snapping outdoor pictures is fun, don’t build cairns just for the photos. This will confuse other hikers who use cairns to navigate.

Why Hikers Should Not Stack Rocks

Stacking rocks can be fun and may even be a form of meditation. If you’re a beginner hiker, chances are you don’t pay attention to cairns as they seem innocent and harmless.

But, there are some reasons why creating cairns is a bad idea. Here are a few reasons why stacking rocks is something all hikers should stop doing:

It Impacts Wildlife

Building cairns on hiking trails have a direct impact on wildlife. For instance, moving so many rocks affects bugs and other tiny animals by disrupting their environment. Rocks have a lot of purposes for these bugs—they may be their nests, homes, protection from predators, etc.

You may think that you’re only grabbing a few rocks so the impact won’t be that huge. But, multiply those rocks by thousands of hikers across the world and you’ll soon see the bigger picture. Displaced rocks take away potential homes and protection from wildlife, which can then force them to transfer to other locations.

It Affects the Environment

Stacking rocks is harmful because it has a direct impact on the environment. Some hikers will recklessly take rocks from various parts of the trail and use them as cairns. Doing this disrupts the ecosystem of the local land and causes erosion.

Stacking one or two rocks won’t hurt, but again, imagine all the rocks being stacked and compounded over time. Cairns are not a natural part of the environment. So, if you see one, resist building a new one since it will impact wildlife and the local environment.

Try to remember one of the seven rules of hiking: leave no trace behind. Leave any rock, leaf, plant, or wildlife as they are during your hike. Moreover, treat your hiking trail with respect and don’t leave any trace to avoid impacting the environment. Stacking rocks is a direct violation of this principle.

Keep in mind that the Leave No Trace principle isn’t just about leaving trash on the trail. It means leaving no sign that you passed by and walked through that area. This is what you call zero impact. If you move rocks to build a decorative cairn, you’re altering nature for the next hiker and are reminding them that you were there.

Why Hikers Stack Rocks: What to Do When You See Stacked Rocks

While some hikers build cairns to help others find their way, others were built for fun and out of innocence. So, what should you do if you see these stacked rocks along your hiking trail?

Your first instinct may be to destroy them and try to return the rocks to their original spots. However, doing this will just make matters worse and result in bigger consequences.

If you see stacked rocks along your path, here are some things you can do:

Don’t Add to Them

It can be tempting to add to large cairns but refrain from doing so. You may damage the cairn, cause it to collapse, and end up confusing other hikers.

Larger cairns are most likely official and authorized cairns made by park rangers. They build these huge cairns to help the mass of hikers stay on the correct hiking trail.

Inform Park Rangers

Alert the park rangers immediately if you see rock cairns that don’t help with guidance and are just causing confusion. Park rangers know how to disassemble the rocks and return them to their original spots with minimal environmental impact.

Every park has a different way to maintain its trails and cairns. However, they all have the same rule. If you encounter a cairn, don’t disturb it, knock it down, or add to it. Observe these Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics guidelines that let you navigate the trail without damaging the landscape:

  • Don’t tamper with cairns. If an official cairn gets tampered with or you build an unauthorized one, future hikers may get disoriented or lost.
  • Never build unauthorized cairns. Moving rocks disturbs the soil and makes the area more vulnerable to erosion. Disturbing them can also disturb fragile vegetation and micro-ecosystems.
  • Avoid adding to existing cairns. Official cairns are carefully designed by park rangers. Adding to the stack can only cause them to collapse.

Also, moving rocks in national parks can be considered illegal as it disrupts the natural state of the ecosystem. The enforcement of this law is rare, but remember that national parks received over 320 million visits in 2019 alone. Imagine if each visitor built a cairn—parks would have been full of cairns, taking away the landscape’s natural beauty!

Conclusion

While you can appreciate the reason why hikers stack rocks, you should also consider their environmental impact. Just leave it to the park rangers to build official rock cairns. If you see one on your trail, inform the rangers—think of it as your way of saving the environment.

Happy shopping and have fun outdoors!

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